By Mark Bowman
ATLANTA — Ronald Acuña Jr.‘s surgically repaired right knee prevented him from producing MVP-caliber numbers this year. But as the regular season enters its most important stretch, it’s apparent he remains one of the game’s most exciting and influential players.
Acuña created multiple jaw-dropping moments while helping the Braves claim a 4-3 win over the Phillies on Saturday night at Truist Park. The five-tool outfielder hit a monstrous opposite-field homer, drove in all of his team’s runs, displayed his great arm strength and made a diving catch to improve Atlanta’s bid to win a fifth consecutive National League East title.
“I don’t think there is any limit to what type of talent he could be,” Braves starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi said. “If he has a full healthy season of what he does, he’s going to be in the MVP conversation year in and year out.”
Acuña has homered each of the past two nights for the Braves, who remain one game behind the first-place Mets in the division race. But he’ll unfortunately go through the remainder of the regular season without his good friend Ozzie Albies, who fractured his right pinky finger when he slid into second base on Saturday night.
“It’s great that we got the win, but it’s really sad Ozzie hurt himself again,” Acuña said through an interpreter.
Albies returned to Atlanta’s lineup on Friday after missing three months with a left foot fracture suffered on June 13. Acuña produced a .923 OPS in 33 games before Albies injured his foot and then constructed a .681 OPS while the second baseman was on the injured list.
“Hopefully, we can keep [Albies] around here, so that [Acuña] can see him,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.
When Albies returned to the lineup a few hours before Acuña hit his game-winning homer on Friday, Braves fans credited the success to the two being reunited. But Acuña’s inconsistencies this year have had more to do with returning from the torn right ACL that caused him to miss last season’s second half and the first few weeks of this season.
Though Acuña might not be discomfort-free until next year, he’s looked strong while hitting opposite-field homers on consecutive nights. His latest was a two-run shot off Aaron Nola that traveled a projected 427 feet, according to Statcast. The third-inning shot was the the third-longest opposite-field homer hit by a right-handed hitter in Truist Park history (since 2017) and the third-longest opposite-field homer of Acuña’s career.
Acuña added what proved to be a decisive two-run double in the fourth off Nola. The Braves outfielder has gone 7-for-20 with two doubles and two homers over his past five games. These results indicate Acuña benefited from taking strain off his right knee by serving only as the team’s designated hitter over a 12-game span from Aug. 31 through Tuesday.
“Things are going back to normal and I hope to feeling good,” Acuña said.
Along with tallying the game-winning hit, Acuña also produced the game’s biggest defensive play. With two outs and the bases loaded in the fifth, Bryce Harper hit a sinking liner that would have scored at least one run had Acuña not made a great diving catch. The inning-ending gem had a 40% catch probability, per Statcast.
“He showed up,” Harper said. “I feel like every time we come here, he shows up pretty well. That’s a great team over there.”
Acuña’s ability to impress was also witnessed in the fifth inning when he made a great throw that nearly denied Bryson Stott’s attempt to score on Matt Vierling’s sacrifice fly. That throw and Acuña’s pedigree also likely influenced Phillies third-base coach Dusty Wathan’s decision to put the stop sign up when Harper went from second to third on Brandon Marsh’s single in the eighth.
Harper ended up scoring, but the sequence was just another example of how Acuña can impact a game.
“It’s good to see Ronnie kind of get this thing going a little bit,” Snitker said. “I think he’s feeling good physically. It’s a pretty good time for him. If he wants to get hot right now, that would be great.”